Europe and Russia mission to assess Moon settlement

The European and Russian space agencies are
to send a lander to an unexplored area at the Moon’s south pole.

It will be one of a series of missions that
prepares for the return of humans to the surface and a possible permanent
settlement.

The spacecraft will assess whether there is
water, and raw materials to make fuel and oxygen.

BBC News has obtained exclusive details of
the mission, called Luna 27, which is set for launch in five years’ time.

The mission is one of a series led by the
Russian federal space agency, Roscosmos, to go back to the Moon.

These ventures will continue where the
exploration programme that was halted by the Soviet Union in the mid 1970s left
off, according to Prof Igor Mitrofanov, of the Space Research Institute in
Moscow, who is one of the lead scientists.

“We have to go to the Moon. The 21st
Century will be the century when it will be the permanent outpost of human
civilisation, and our country has to participate in this process,” he told
BBC News.

But unlike efforts in the 1960s and 70s,
when the Soviet Union was working in competition with the US and other nations,
he added, “we have to work together with our international
colleagues”.

Full moon: Gregory H. Revera
Bérengère Houdou, who is the head of the lunar
exploration group of at Esa’s European Space Research and Technology Centre
(Estec), just outside Amsterdam, has a similar strategy.

“We have an ambition to have European
astronauts on the Moon. There are currently discussions at international level
going on for broad cooperation on how to go back to the Moon.”

One of the first acts of the new head of
the European Space Agency, Johann-Dietrich Wörner, was to state that he wants
international partners to build a base on the Moon’s far side.

The initial missions will be robotic. Luna
27 will land on the edge of the South Pole Aitken (SPA) basin. The south polar
region has areas which are always dark. These are some of the coldest places in
the Solar System. As such, they are icy prisons for water and other chemicals
that have been shielded from heating by the Sun.

According to Dr James Carpenter, Esa’s lead
scientist on the project, one of the main aims is to investigate the potential
use of this water as a resource for the future, and to find out what it can
tell us about the origins of life in the inner Solar System.

“The south pole of the Moon is unlike
anywhere we have been before,” he said.

“The environment is completely
different, and due to the extreme cold there you could find large amounts of
water-ice and other chemistry which is on the surface, and which we could
access and use as rocket fuel or in life-support systems to support future
human missions we think will go to these locations.”

Back in the heady days of the Apollo
missions, it seemed almost inevitable that those astounding but brief trips to
the Moon would be followed by something more permanent. But the notion of
colonies soon proved to be science fantasy. After the last of 12 astronauts
left their boot prints in the lunar dust in 1972, the US government and
taxpayers collectively declared, “been there, done that”. America had
scored a dazzling point over the Soviet Union but at eye-watering cost, so the
final three planned Apollo missions were cancelled.

For a while, our nearest neighbour in space
seemed rather unappealing. But then, over recent years, came a series of
discoveries about the lunar dust itself, suggesting that the Moon holds water
and minerals that could conceivably help support a settlement, if anyone has
the appetite to pay for it. So a new batch of missions is under way. China
seems to be particularly eager, launching increasingly capable robotic craft
that could pave the way for human flights, sometime in the 2030s.

In all probability, the next boots on the
Moon will be Chinese. One of China’s leading space scientists told me how he
even envisages opening lunar mines to extract valuable resources such as
Helium-3. Throughout history, humanity has gazed at the Moon through different
eyes. In the 1960s, it was the scene for Cold War rivalry. Now it is seen as a
potential staging-post for longer journeys and as a rock waiting to be dug up
and exploited.

Prof Mitrofanov says that there are
scientific and commercial benefits to be had by building a permanent human
presence on the lunar surface.

“It will be for astronomical
observation, for the utilisation of minerals and other lunar resources and to
create an outpost that can be visited by cosmonauts working together as a test
bed for their future flight to Mars.”

Esa and its industrial collaborators are
developing a new type of landing system able to target areas far more precisely
than the missions in the 1960s and 70s. 

The so-called “Pilot” system
uses on-board cameras to navigate and a laser guidance system which is able to sense
the terrain while approaching the surface and be able to decide for itself
whether the landing site is safe or not, and if necessary to re-target to a
better location.

Europe is also providing the drill which is
designed to go down to 2m and collect what might be hard, icy samples.
According to Richard Fisackerly, the project’s lead engineer, these samples
might be harder than reinforced concrete and so the drill will need to be
extremely strong.

“We are currently looking at the
technologies we would need to penetrate that type of material and are looking
at having both rotation and hammering functions. The final architecture has yet
to be decided – but this combination of rotation, hammering and depth is a step
beyond what we have already flown or is in development today,” he told BBC
News.

Esa will also provide the onboard
miniaturised laboratory, called ProSPA. It will be similar to the instrument on
the Philae lander, which touched down on the surface of Comet 67P last year.
But ProSPA will be tuned to searching for the key ingredients with which to
make water, oxygen, fuel and other materials that can be exploited by future
astronauts.

The instrument will help scientists
discover out how much of these critical resources are under the surface, and, crucially,
whether they can be extracted easily.

Europe’s participation in the mission is
due to receive final approval at a meeting of ministers in late 2016. It has
the strong support of Esa and Roscosmos hierarchy, and the scientists involved
in Luna 27 are confident that it is not a question of if but when humans go
back to the lunar surface.

“This whole series of missions feels
like the beginning of the return to the Moon but it is also starting something
new in terms of overall exploration of the Solar System,” says Mr
Fisackerly.

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Posted on October 20, 2015, in Useful Information. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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